Chaos in Cairo

A year after Mohamed Morsy was elected President, protests seeking a premature end to his tenure rock Egypt. It is about rewriting the rules of the revolution rather than a return to autocracy.

Published : Jul 10, 2013 12:30 IST

Anti-regime protesters in the coastal city of Alexandria on June 28. President Morsy's foes have mobilised a large number of people seeking his resignation.

Anti-regime protesters in the coastal city of Alexandria on June 28. President Morsy's foes have mobilised a large number of people seeking his resignation.

A YEAR AFTER MOHAMED MORSY TOOK OVER AS Egypt’s first democratically elected President, the country is in turmoil. But the threat of a counter-revolution seems far away. The seething protests that are rocking large parts of Egypt seek the exit of Morsy from the political centre stage rather than the substitution of democracy with autocratic military rule.

Egypt’s embattled head of state is facing a political firestorm. Morsy’s foes seem to have united against him. In an exhibition of muscle-flexing, they have mobilised a large mass of supporters that is seeking the President’s resignation. After a year of spasmodic chaos, many on the Egyptian street have begun to demand a temporary return to military rule—reminiscent of the rather brief intervention by the armed forces after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, which was followed by elections to parliament and the presidency.

A fresh round of high-octane protests seeking a premature end to Morsy’s tenure has commenced. A compilation of 15 million signatures, more than the votes amassed by Morsy last year, has become the touchstone for demanding the President’s exit. A dangerous flirtation of some of the protesters with the army to carry out a course correction has also become palpable. On the eve of the first anniversary of the Morsy presidency, hundreds gathered in front of the Defence Ministry headquarters in eastern Cairo demanding that Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi take over the reins of power from the President.

The re-ignition of the debate over the military’s role in resolving the confrontation between the President’s supporters and the opposition is finding visible expression at Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, the emblem of the Egyptian revolution. Ahead of the first anniversary of Morsy’s appointment, a few thousands gathered at the square brandishing placards that supported the military. The all-pervasive slogan of the early days of the revolution, “The people and the army are one hand”, has also staged a bold re-entry. Yet, the anti-military sentiment has not disappeared either, mirroring the multiple splits that currently prevail in a socially fragmented Egypt. It was, therefore, not surprising to witness a smaller group of Egyptians at the square in a stubborn face-off with the pro-military groups, rejecting the idea of the army’s re-accommodation in the national political mainstream. A third opinion on the military has also begun to resonate powerfully on Cairo’s chaotic streets—that the army could stage a temporary return until the time a “national unity government” is formed, in case Morsy chooses to step down.

Morsy’s counterattack

But Morsy has been in no mood to relent. Combining a policy of reconciliation and toughness, he has already mounted his riposte. The President’s robust counterattack has come in the form a lengthy televised address on the eve of the anniversary of his assumption of the presidential office. The carefully choreographed speech targeted all sections—the unemployed youth, the poor, the middle class, as well as sections of the plutocracy that continue to hallucinate about turning the clock back by reviving the pre-revolution era. Morsy began by announcing a slew of institutional reforms, spearheaded by the formation of a committee that would examine the opposition’s proposals on amending the Constitution. The olive branch dangled before the opposition became all too evident when the President agreed to consider all constitutional amendments that his rivals wished to propose.

He then sought to reassure minority groups, especially Coptic Christians who have faced the brunt of repeated attacks mounted by Islamist extremists since Mubarak’s exit. He announced the formation of a committee “consisting of representatives of political parties, Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the Coptic Orthodox Church, so-called revolutionary forces and NGOs [non-governmental organisations]”, to promote “national dialogue” in the hope of cementing credible national cohesion.

With the economy in the doldrums, and shortages already feeding fierce social discontent, Morsy announced that government Ministers and regional Governors henceforth would be empowered to sack officials guilty of playing a role in engendering conditions of scarcity. There have been chronic shortages of petroleum products in recent months, resulting in serpentine queues outside petrol stations. Morsy warned that owners of petrol stations indulging in fuel hoarding would have their licences revoked.

There were tantalising sops as well in the cleverly crafted presidential address. Morsy promised a further increase in the minimum wage and public sector salaries, along with a waiver of loans of small farmers. Realising that accommodation of youth leaders in decision-making could dampen a budding revolt, the President ordered government Ministers and provincial Governors to appoint advisers below the age of 40 in their teams. “The youth were never given a chance to play a role in the country, and for that I am sorry,” said Morsy. “I will make sure they do soon.” The President also apologised for “making many mistakes” during his first year in office.

While he adopted a conciliatory approach towards the rest, the President was predictably harsh on former pro-Mubarak oligarchs, accusing them of indulging in a plot to destabilise Egypt. The victims, some would say scapegoats, of his scathing attack included his closest rival in the presidential race, Ahmed Shafiq.

“He’s based abroad, yet continues to call for toppling the government,” the President said of Shafiq, who is currently residing in the United Arab Emirates. “Is that not a crime?” he asked.

Morsy also urged the opposition not to play the military card, pointing out that in the end, as President, he was the man in charge on account of his constitutional position as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Despite the President’s conciliatory overtures, the opposition stood adamant about Morsy’s exit and the formation of a national-unity government. The largest opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front (NSF), announced that it had decided to boycott all dialogue with the President. “It’s too late,” said NSF spokesman Khaled Dawood. “The only way out is that the [President] accept to hold early presidential polls.” Other opposition groups—the Constitution Party, the Free Egyptians Party and the Democratic Egyptian Party, all members of an umbrella group—also declared that they were in no mood for a dialogue.

“It’s illogical that the opposition sits with the presidency to listen to flimsy excuses and flimsy achievements while the country is falling apart,” read a recent statement published by the Free Egyptians Party.

Foreign policy record

Compared with his patchy domestic record, Morsy seemed to have done remarkably well on the foreign policy front. The President, who has a background in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, showed astounding awareness about global power shifts, making it clear that Egypt’s future lay in a deeper engagement with the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) grouping, a policy of building bridges with Iran and the Gulf countries and closer ties with Africa. In an interview prior to his visit to India in March, the President had said that Egypt hoped one day to join the BRICS and turn it into E-BRICS, with E standing for Egypt. He further extolled the benefits that the developing world could draw from a stronger BRICS grouping. He pointed out that BRICS had some wonderful ideas which included the establishment of an international development bank.

“It is very important to set up this bank with a developmental perspective that can support countries to achieve high growth rates and to supplement the role of the IMF [International Monetary Fund], World Bank and similar institutions. Imparting balance to financial relationships is very important. In many cases, the power of the economy controls and directs the political aspects. So when you have a group of countries that balances the economic aspects, we have development taking place without political interference from others,” he said. He also pointed out the necessity of a close relationship with Iran in order to prevent a sectarian Sunni-Shia clash that threatened to tear apart the already volatile region.

Morsy has clearly identified a role for China and India in the evolution of the country’s ambitious Al Nahda project, which requires an additional investment of around $200 billion for the development of infrastructure in the Suez Canal cities of Suez and Port Said. The infusion of fresh capital is meant to substantially augment the international trade passing through the Suez Canal far beyond the existing 20 per cent level. Egypt hopes to attract generous Chinese investment in the manufacturing sector, especially around the industrial city of Ismailia, not far from the Suez. Indian contribution would be welcomed in advanced areas such as information technology. The Egyptians hope to create another Silicon Valley in the Sinai desert with the contribution of Indian expertise in this sector, which also includes collaboration for the development of broadband communication. Besides, President Morsy has prioritised tie-ups with India in the field of defence, especially in areas of military navigation and electronics.

Despite his grand vision of Egypt’s renaissance in collaboration with emerging powers, Morsy’s foreign policy has become entrapped in the Muslim Brotherhood’s flawed ideological stance. From Gulf countries such as Qatar to Turkey, where it continues to exercise substantial influence, the Muslim Brotherhood has chosen an alliance with the West, especially the United States, to advance its cause. Unlike Iran, which has formed a broad anti-imperialist front by allying with secularists such as Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and fellow Shias that support the Lebanese Hizbollah, the Muslim Brothers in the region have ended up as allies of the U.S. and the former colonial powers, especially Britain and France. Consequently, the alliance of Sunni-dominated countries, which chiefly include Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and their Western partners are working feverishly to overthrow the Syrian regime. Egypt has provided strong moral support to this group by breaking its diplomatic ties with the Assad government. In doing so, Egypt has endangered its future ties with Iran as well as China and Russia, two heavyweights from the BRICS grouping that have rejected the idea of a regime change in Syria.

Morsy’s fate

At the end of a year of his presidency, Morsy’s fate hangs in the balance. Although a counter-revolution is not on the horizon—the President’s foes want to rewrite the rules of the revolution rather than return to autocracy— Morsy finds himself in the firing line. But toppling the current President will not be easy. After all, he is the product of a credible election and therefore has solid legitimacy and the moral authority to govern. The crescendo seeking his exit is also deceptive. In a society that is almost evenly divided between secularists and Islamists, President Morsy can depend on the Brotherhood’s disciplined cadre to muster sufficient street power to keep the hounds baying for his blood at bay. Eleven Islamist political parties have already launched the “National Alliance for Legitimacy Support” with a view to protecting “the Egyptian people’s democratic gains”.

Once again, the military has become the focus of attention, not as a force that can mount a coup but rather as a player that can swing the balance of power in Egypt’s divided polity. A year since the takeover of an elected government, Egypt’s shaky democracy continues its struggle to find deeper roots that are robust enough to survive the brewing firestorm.

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